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9 September 2023

The week that ruined Rishi Sunak’s autumn

The idea that changing leaders again might improve the Tories’ chances used to seem absurd. Now I’m not sure.

By Jonn Elledge

Monday (4 September) was, the unseasonable heat notwithstanding, the first day after the summer recess – and yet, by 8.15am that morning the former permanent secretary for the Department for Education had already ruined the Prime Minister’s autumn. Jonathan Slater told the Today programme that the government knew that England needed to rebuild as many as 300-400 schools a year to deal with “crumbly” Raac concrete that had passed its natural lifespan. It had set aside funding for just 100 – until the then chancellor got involved, and cut that number to 50. (Actual number since rebuilt: four.) An outraged nation tutted, and went on with its breakfast.

Much of this column is going to be dedicated to pointing and laughing at a government which requires an official inquiry to find its own arse with both hands, but before I do that, let’s take a moment to dwell on quite how shocking this is. Thousands of families were, in the first week of term, learning that their kids’ schools were at risk of collapse; millions more were worried they might be in the same boat. The chain of causation traced, as clearly as anything ever can be in politics, back to decisions taken at the start of this government, and to funding cuts made by the Prime Minister. But Rishi Sunak, with the commitment to personal responsibility for which the Tory party is justly famed, was soon popping up on the news to reassure us that it was “completely and utterly wrong” to suggest that he was in any way to blame for a decision he had himself taken. 

In fairness, there are plenty of other people whose fingerprints are all over this one: Michael Gove, who as education secretary scrapped Labour’s assorted school rebuilding programmes to focus on “free schools” and “academisation”, smashed up the local education authorities that would previously have kept track of minor things such as whether schools were on the verge of collapse; George Osborne, who as chancellor not only promoted austerity, but made the short-sighted decision to take chunks out of capital budgets on the grounds that this was easier than finding cuts in current spending. And then there’s whichever Tory comms genius thought tweeting out a graphic reading “Most schools unaffected” would actually help. It’s like an airline advertising that its planes crash surprisingly rarely. 

Someone who is confident they’re not to blame is the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, who has only been in post since October and so has barely done anything. Later that morning she was to be found on ITV News making the novel argument that the government was not really responsible for the safety of school buildings but, out of the goodness of its heart, had been looking into it anyway. Then, once she believed the recording had concluded, she complained that nobody had bothered to thank her. Since Theresa May became prime minister in 2016, Britain has gone through eight education secretaries, who have been in post for an average of 326 days. Today, Saturday (9 September), is Keegan’s 319th day.

[See also: Raac crisis shows Britain’s malaise goes far deeper than inflation]

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Perhaps this is overly cynical, but I’m not entirely convinced Keegan’s “hot mic” moment was accidental: positioning herself as the plain-speaking one in a world of incompetent jobsworths feels like the kind of thing a Tory, drunk on their own Kool-Aid, might wrongly believe will endear them to voters. Either way, the core argument of “not our fault, guv” seems likely to go down about as well with the voters as the actual state of the schools. Most people neither know nor care about the exact lines of accountability in education policy, and, anyway, the decision to slash investment was the government’s fault. Someone is surely going to pay for this, which is why it feels likely Keegan won’t be doing much to extend the average education secretary tenure. 

Anyway: that was Monday morning. Parliament had yet to sit down.

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Other things also happened this week. On Tuesday, NHS England warned hospitals to be ready to evacuate on the grounds that an upsetting number of them had been built with iffy concrete, too. The same day Britain’s largest local authority, Birmingham, became the latest in a long line of councils to effectively declare itself bankrupt. (Another three cheers, please, for Osborne’s legacy to Britain.) Everywhere you look, after 13 years of Tory government, this country is all too literally collapsing. 

Meanwhile, Chris Pincher, having lost an appeal against his suspension for drunkenly groping two men, announced he would be standing down as Conservative MP for Tamworth, triggering yet another by-election in what was a safe Tory seat (which the party is on course to lose). And on Wednesday, YouGov released some polling on the anniversary of Liz Truss’s first day as prime minister, asking the electorate how they thought she had done. A genuinely mortifying 7 per cent of voters, and 11 per cent of Conservatives, believed she had done well. I would like to read an interview with some of the 1 per cent of Labour voters who said it had gone “very well”. 

Last Friday (1 September), the Express reported that the Downing Street chief of staff had warned his team that anyone who didn’t believe the Tories can win the next election might as well quit. On the strength of the week just gone, it’s hard to disagree with the decision of No 10 communications director Amber de Botton to do just that. 

The same report said that letters of no confidence in Sunak’s leadership were already starting to arrive at the 1922 Committee of back-bench Conservatives, not all from the usual suspects, and that if things do not improve, the trickle could turn into a flood. Eight days ago, the idea that changing leaders again might improve the Tories’ chances seemed absurd. After this week, though, I’m not so sure.

[See also: How Conservative complacency left schools to rot]

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